Tyler Stache had opportunities in the past year to do right by the customers he failed.
At the ripe age of 23, the Des Moines appliance repair business owner has been the target of more than 40 consumer complaints to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, at least eight reports to Des Moines police alleging theft, fraud and harassment, 34 complaints to the Better Business Bureau, and a half-dozen small claims cases.
Stache was arrested on a felony forgery charge in March, the same week a Readers’ Watchdog probe detailed how a cadre of customers in central Iowa had reported losing thousands after hiring Stache and Sons Appliance Repair. Several former customers said he’d threatened them after they complained about money they had lost and poor service, according to the complaints.
In emails to Watchdog, Stache said customers’ accusations against him were false, and he claimed he was having the criminal charges against him dismissed.
But he lost every civil small claims case against him andpleaded guilty in the two criminal cases. Though he was allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges, records show he has not paid any restitution or fines.
Instead, Stache and his wife Emma Ziegler, also named in civil suits, moved to Missouri — leaving their former customers in the lurch.
In a year that saw record home sales and manic, pandemic-induced home improvement, it may come as no surprise that two of the most-read Watchdog columns over the last 12 months centered on people accused of failing to disclose defects in home sales and a contractor accused of bilking customers.
For those not familiar, I hatched the idea for the Watchdog column in late 2012 after years of being the Des Moines Register’s investigative editor. The goal was to explore a diverse mix of problems and issues that readers would bring to us.
I endeavored not to sweat small stuff. Instead, the focus would be on untold stories that cry out for sunlight, issues that potentially affect a lot of people or teach something useful.
When choosing which suggestions to pursue, I try to ask: Would this be something that most of us, no matter our politics or backgrounds, would find bewildering, unjust or plain wrong? Eight years later, readers still drive the work — not me, my coworkers or editors.
The concept has worked well, so well Watchdog has been replicated at other newspapers around the country. This year, as always, columns have focused on concerns raised about government, nonprofits or businesses, including:
Seeking more transparency before a big decision with a nonprofit
After volunteers at Joppa, a growing Des Moines nonprofit, raised questions about its fiduciary oversight, high employee turnover and leadership, Watchdog was asked to push for answers before an important City Council meeting that would help decide the fate of founder Joe Stevens’ plan to build a transitional village of tiny houses for the organization’s homeless clientele.
City leaders and other nonprofits serving the homeless also expressed concerns about Stevens’ lack of financial transparency, an exodus of all but one full-time employee over a short period, and Joppa’s lack of collaboration with its counterparts.
After failing to produce an audit and other requested financial information, Stevens recently put off a rezoning hearing with the City Council until sometime next year for a second time.
“The coalition will begin meeting again in January and when the coalition is aligned and the time is right, we will re-initiate the rezoning request for the property,” Stevens said in an email.
When asked how much he had raised for the tiny house village so far and other questions about changes on Joppa’s board of directors, he said: “Over the past three months, I have answered your questions to the best of my ability and now need to turn my full attention to meeting the needs of homeless individuals in our community ahead of the most critical time of the year. We can talk again later in 2022 when there is updated information to report about the Tiny Home Village project.”
Council member Josh Mandelbaum, a member of the tiny house coalition committee, said he’s raised questions about finances, whether Stevens’ projected staffing and budget for the village is sufficient, how transportation will be handled for residents and how Joppa anticipates raising more money for the village.
“The bottom line: If this is going to be back in front of the council, these are all things that will need to be addressed,” he said.
Finding out why repeat drunk drivers go free in Iowa
One of the ways an investigative journalist can be most useful to readers is to dig for answers when people are outraged and deserve greater understanding.
After the head-on February crash near Perry that killed Danyel Hardisty and severely injured her 7-year-old son, Javen Sorenson, family members wanted to know why driver Stephen Wink hadn’t been jailed after his fourth OWI arrest in May 2020.
Wink, 53 at the time of the fatal wreck, likely would have been behind bars had it not been for a pandemic-related court error that led to the dismissal of the Council Bluffs resident’s fourth OWI last year.
His case raised the question: How many other third or subsequent OWI cases were dismissed during the same year?
Turns out there were 51 — more than previous years, according to information Watchdog received from Iowa’s court system.
An examination of those cases showed a problem: Defendants were routinely refusing field sobriety or other alcohol testing, which hindered prosecutors’ ability to convict them on OWI charges.
Many cases ended in pleas on lesser charges, resulting in little or no jail time. That happened even in situations when defendants had acted violently toward law enforcement officers, crashed or caused accidents, or were caught with alcohol and drugs.
Much to the relief of Hardisty’s family, Wink ultimately received a 30-year sentence for vehicular homicide and serious injury by vehicle in connection with that crash. He also was ordered to pay $150,000 to her estate as well as funeral costs and medical expenses.
Spotlight leads to acts of kindness, help where there was none
On good days, readers’ willingness to share their hardships engenders the empathy of others — and sometimes, much-needed help.
A column in May was a prime example, written after Watchdog heard from a Clarion couple whose 13-year-old son was languishing in an emergency shelter where he had been for 6 1/2 months.
Diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity and attachment disorders, anxiety and depression, Sam Woodley would prowl in the middle of the night and hide things, sometimes touched others inappropriately, had trouble reading people’s emotions and boundaries, and could be deceitful, his mother said.
His parents could find no safe place for him to go other than the Fort Dodge emergency shelter.
“My worst fear is that he will end up in the criminal system and he won’t ever get out,” said Nicole Woodley, a Lutheran pastor and mother of five. “His understanding of consequence and remorse is very different than other people.”
A month later, Balance Autism, a company that provides services and some housing for children and adults with autism, admitted Sam Woodley into a small, eight-child residential program in Altoona.
In another case, state and national leaders of the National Federation for the Blind were forced to take action after a Watchdog investigation in January of complaints by several Iowa women associated with the group. They said they had reported abuse and sexual harassment only to experience retaliation, alienation and damage to their reputation and professional and personal relationships.
The Watchdog report highlighted how blind women across the country who rely on the federation’s advocacy, funding, programming and services, had been inspired by the #MeToo movement to report incidents of rape, groping and harassment at federation-backed conferences, training centers and other programs.
In March, the head of Iowa’s federation chapter announced mandatory anti-sexual violence training for all employees, contractors, directors, staff, students, training centers and state affiliate leaders, as well as other steps.
Exploring Iowa’s conundrum with marijuana legalization
Because a majority of Iowans indicated this spring in an Iowa Poll that they supported legalizing recreational marijuana, Watchdog decided to examine how expanded legalization nationally was already impacting the state and its anemic medical marijuana program.
The five-part series was an example of the kind of longer-term explanatory projects I try to take on every year, knowing the dwindling number of journalists around the state won’t be able to tackle an issue with so many tentacles.
In 2020, I looked at another timely topic: Iowa’s outdated bottle bill, which was the subject of a similar four-part Watchdog series called “Kick the Can.”
Keeping the pressure on
In December, when I emailed Tyler Stache to ask if he had any intention of paying his civil court judgments, fines or restitution, he wrote back to say: “Why don’t you f— off.”
Much to the dismay of Stache’s victims, authorities in Iowa haven’t done much so far to pursue fines and restitution after he failed to abide by the terms of his plea agreements in the criminal cases.
But I’m still tracking him — and so are others.
A lawyer in Des Moines, the son of one of Stache’s victims in Madison County, said he still has long-term plans to pursue a $30,000 civil judgment awarded against Stache.
Jasper Vanhofse amassed enough evidence this year from former customers to help authorities pursue a second felony charge that also resulted in a plea by Stache to fraudulent practices. The prosecutor and judge in that case forced Stache to pay $2,000 in restitution immediately in exchange for another guilty plea to lesser charges.
Collecting the more sizeable damages that Vanhofse won for his mother, Hilde DeBruyne, under Iowa’s consumer fraud law will take much more effort.
Vanhofse said Stache has been unresponsive to demands for payment of the $30,000. So Vanhofse intends to force him to go back to court, while also seeking judgments for seven other alleged victims for as long as it takes.
“The collection process can be a very, very long process,” Vanhofse said. “At this point, he doesn’t have any assets. But the idea would be that we keep going until he accumulates assets that can be garnished or leveraged.”
If Stache and his wife do not show up eventually for what’s called a debtor’s exam to come clean about their assets, they can be held in contempt of court and wind up with a warrant out for their arrest, Vanhofse said.
To date, they owe $51,850.76 in damages and civil court judgments, Vanhofse said.
Before you hire a contractor
Check references. Before you sign anything or pay any money, ask around and take time to talk with the contractor. Ask people you know and trust whom they have hired for their projects and whether they were satisfied.
Check complaints with the Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org. Be wary of any person or company not listed in the local telephone directory, and be wary of contractors who provide only a post office box and not a street address.
Go to iowacourts.state.ia.us to check court cases involving the business and the individual.
Get several written estimates or bids. Be sure the estimates include everything you want done and nothing more than you want. Although low bids are often what people look for, they can raise red flags.
Get the contract in writing and read it before you sign it. The contract should detail terms, including the work to be done. It should state the brand and specifications of the materials to be used; the price; the party responsible for obtaining permits and scheduling inspections; that all change orders must be in writing; and the party responsible for cleanup.
Put start and completion dates in writing, as well as the remedies if the contractor fails to meet them.
Avoid paying large sums or for the entire job up front. If you need to make a partial advance payment for materials, make your check out to the supplier and the contractor. Insist on a mechanic’s lien waiver in case the contractor fails to pay others for materials or labor.
Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at [email protected], at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: From bad contractors to marijuana: How Readers’ Watchdog helped in 2021